Part one of a six part examination of various recent documentaries, which I expect to finish by the end of the month.
by Ken B.
Billionaire David Siegel built his fortune from time share resorts he ran from the 1980s, and owning a 52 story building on the Vegas strip. He’s filthy rich these days, with his third wife Jackie (perhaps of the trophy variety…?), a former model, and their eight children. We never get to know the kids. I’m not sure if I want to know about the kids. One of them is inherited through one of Jackie’s relatives, from a tough background, and then made the sudden switch. They live in a big house and want a bigger house. The new one will be 90,000 square feet, modeled after the Palace of Versailles, with thirteen bathrooms, ten kitchens, two tennis courts, and an absurdly large grand staircase. The biggest home in America.
Then, in 2008, the recession hits.
Their world comes crashing down. The Siegels, which spend the first half of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary living in compulsively maddening ignorance to the rest of the world, must face reality, or however much they can. Employees of David’s company are laid off by the hundreds. He cuts his home staff in half. (There are now only four nannies/housekeepers, which is apparently a tragedy for them, who must now start to do their own housework. Jackie even says that she wouldn’t have had so many kids if she knew she’d have to do so much work herself.) And they can’t finish the house, which they put on the market for the humble price of $100 million.
The Queen of Versailles is an oddly interesting examination of the fabled upper-one percent. As times become tougher, their initial oblivious nature becomes incontestable. It’s a evilly watchable tragedy – Schadenfreude at its finest and most compelling. It provokes a final message as well: the higher you are, the farther the fall.
As this 100 minute film moves along, you learn more and more about these people, and you’re not exactly sure that you would want to know them personally – at least at the start. It’s a cruel thing to say, but perhaps dire financial struggle make the heads of the family more tolerable and grounded. It’s not that the Siegels are (or were) inherently bad people. It’s just probably safe to make the assumption that after one is built so high above normality, a grasp with the reality that most face is unapparent until a crash like the one in 2008 forces you to deal with it. It’s hypocritical to chastise these people for enjoying their lifestyle – who wouldn’t? (Although it probably is worth questioning the actual ramifications of building a replica of Versailles for your own private use).
When all is said and done, The Queen of Versailles is a film that is indeed interesting, but is entertaining the right word? It’s about a crumbling small empire and the lack of preparedness it’s greeted by. It can be said that it is very fascinating, but maybe this isn’t the most appropriate scenario to find a considerable amount of joy in experiencing.
Oh, if you’ve seen it, you know that of course it’s entertaining!